The Mighty Hellebore

Hellebores are native to the Balkans. Photo by Kit Flynn


By Kit Flynn

I’m a curmudgeon when it comes to hellebores. Their non-stop promiscuity is tiresome – and as I have occasionally informed them, it’s also in bad taste. The resulting babies, appearing at the ripe old age of two, are hard to pluck out of the ground, the colors of the flowers resemble mud in many cases, and a sea of hellebores is not my idea of a garden asset or an appropriate ground cover.

Juvenile hellebores. Photo by Kit Flynn.

Therefore, I turned to Tony Avent’s program on hellebores on YouTube with a somewhat jaundiced eye – and came out of it thinking that I may have misjudged this genus. It turns out that there has been a lot of development in the hybridization of the genus Helleborus in the past decade.

Native to the Balkans, hellebores grow both in the woodlands and prairies. Basically, there are two types: (1) Those that have their stems above ground, such as H. foetidus and H. lividis; and (2) Those that have underground stems we call rhizomes. The majority of hellebores, including H. x hybridus and H. niger belong in this second group.

The sad truth about H. x hybridus is that the many varieties comprising this species do not reproduce true from seed, resulting in a “muddy mess” of colors. Therefore, if you have planted a hybrid hellebore you would like to reproduce, the best measure is to plant three plants of the same variety close to one another; hopefully the bees will pollinate these flowers from one another. Plant a purple next to a white or yellow and the offspring will have taken on a muddy hue.

A few years ago, German hybridizers managed to marry H. niger, the so-called Christmas hellebore that blooms in November and December, with varieties of H. x. hybridus, thereby changing the hellebore market. The resulting offspring, blooming in January rather than February, have flowers facing outward rather than facing down. Today, there has been an amazing array of colors and shapes produced.

Other breakthroughs in hellebore hybridization include the double-flowered hellebores and the production of yellow hellebores. All the double-flowered ones come from the one hellebore species bearing double flowers in the wild. The hybridization of a pure yellow, long sought after, was also a great advance.

As a result of breeding inter-species, almost all of the offspring are sterile – and that is a positive attribute for those of us who do not seek hellebore domination. Be aware that the H. x hybridus varieties remain promiscuous so reading the label is important. Because hellebores are so hard to dig out, I personally would opt for sterility.

Tony has taken out all those hellebores that are ten to fifteen years old because the advances have been so spectacular. Remolding your hellebore beds demands some patience, however, as it will take four to five years to produce a lovely new clump.

Most of the hellebore varieties sold are a year old; because they haven’t produced flowers yet, the buyer should know that these plants have a 95% chance of running true to color. While that is a high percentage, Plant Delights offers two-year-old plants that are in bloom so you are assured of what you are purchasing.

This is an advantage as these new hellebores are not inexpensive—and presumably, you’re buying the plant for the color of its flowers. Today, because most reproduction takes place with hand-crossed seeds, the resulting seeds can be expensive, as much as $4.00-5.00 per seed.

Hellebores do not grow well in deep shade. What they want is a light shade with some sunlight. They aren’t particular about their soil but they dislike being wet so make sure their soil is well-draining. Division should only occur in the fall or winter; divide in the spring or summer only if you want to kill the hellebore.

When should you cut back the old leaves, damaged by winter? Plant Delights waits until the flowers have risen above the leaves. The old leaves can keep the soil warm, an advantage in January. I once cut back the old leaves in the late fall, thinking that this would give me a leg up when the spring pruning session rolled around. According to Tony, the plant needs these leaves throughout the winter so this is not a good idea.

When the hellebore urge hits you, look at the label first. If there is a H. x hybridus cultivar you simply must have, I recommend buying three of them, planting them close to one another so that the babies have a good chance of reflecting their parentage. If you are buying another hellebore species (such as H. x iburgensis or H. x ballardiae), plant with abandon as you have bought a sterile hellebore.

Birth control works in wondrous ways.

After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for 13 years, Kit Flynn now holds emeritus status. For five years she was the gardening correspondent for “Senior Correspondent” and shared “The Absentee Gardener” column with fellow Master Gardener Lise Jenkins. She has given numerous presentations on various gardening topics to Triangle organizations and can be reached at

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1 Comment on "The Mighty Hellebore"

  1. Or just stick with the new sterile hybrids – beautiful foliage and an increasing colorful blooms. They get better every year.

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